In my assessment, the opening conference for the first level of the 18-month course brought so much learning. I experienced some small moments of anxiety along the way, and I was pleased with how kind I was to myself as I moved through those moments. There were also some fun moments, some humbling moments, and some moments of great learning. Throughout it all, I tried my best to give it my everything, with as much self-kindness as I could muster.

Before I participated in each activity, I reminded myself that participation was an invitation, not a mandatory requirement. I also asked myself whether I wanted to accept the invitation, rather than telling myself that I had no choice. During some of the group discussions, I didn’t feel as though I had any thoughts to offer and, rather than beating myself up for not having anything to contribute, I simply told myself that I wasn’t ready to accept the invitation to speak on that occasion. I was in acceptance that the only requirement of myself was that I see every choice I made as an opportunity to take on some new learning. Regardless of what I chose to do (or not do), my commitment to myself was that I would always try to look for the learning that was waiting to happen.

At the end of the four days, we had a group sharing session. When it was my turn to speak, I remember saying “I have learnt that I am happy being me”. I was quite surprised when those words came out of my mouth, and was curious about where they had come from. I realised, however, that this was genuinely how I was feeling. For years, I had unwittingly operated from self-judgement, self-doubt, fear and anxiety, especially in new situations. On this occasion, I had sat with every mood and emotion that popped up and had supported myself through it. I hadn’t judged myself; I had simply watched, loved and supported myself. It was an amazing feeling, and I really had felt completely happy being me. When I reflected on this later, I became quite emotional. It felt like such a huge step forward from the broken person who had so nervously walked into that very first coaching conversation two years prior.

In that first level of the course, I was terrified that my time management would not be up to scratch. How am I ever going to combine a full time job, a course, being a mother and being a wife, not to mention everything else? My assessment is that this fear manifested itself as an almost obsessive level of perfection. I planned all of my work within an inch of its life, and started the course level by being almost two assignments ahead in my planning at most times, in an attempt to avoid being behind. I was so focused on meeting all of the deadlines that it was normal for me to submit my assignments a week early. If I submitted an assignment on time I panicked because, to me, that was running late. I held myself so tightly to the assignment due dates that I would sit up until the early hours of the morning to get assignments done if that was the only way; no way would I ever ask for an extension.

What I found interesting about this experience of perfection was that I didn’t judge myself for it. At the time, I saw it as helping me to manage my time, so I formed an assessment that it was serving me and not ruling me. I made a commitment to myself that, if it ruled me, I would find a way to remove it.

And so I welcomed perfection like an old friend, and invited it to stay for as long as it was prepared to be helpful. Then, I sat with it and observed it, making it very clear that if it stopped serving me, I would ask it to leave. Occasionally I had a laugh at how I worked with it, a friendly laugh that came from trying to understand that my perfection “…is what it is”. It felt quite powerful to be holding something as a close friend that, for most of my life, had seemed to work against me rather than with me. I really appreciated this opportunity to more deeply understand myself and my tendency towards perfection.

When I first arrived home from the 4-day opening conference with the binder of course notes for the first level of the course, I remember being quite amused that the binder contained a paper detailing how to read the assignment papers. I actually scoffed about it to my husband: Oh my goodness, these ontological types think of everything! There is even a paper on how to read the course papers! Who seriously needs a paper on how to read the papers? Little did I know how much that single paper would come to mean to me. My gratitude for it will be eternal.

At the end of Assignment 2, I felt as though something was missing from my learning. My assessment was that I was doing very well at relating the papers to my prior learning from my own life experiences. I also thought that I was doing well at acquiring academic knowledge about the ontological distinctions. However, something felt missing. It was as though there was something deeper that I just wasn’t experiencing. I had a niggling feeling that I was limiting myself, that I could be experiencing and feeling so much more if I could only broaden the way in which I was listening to the papers. What am I not allowing myself to see? What else could I learn from the papers? How might I experience the papers, rather than simply acquiring academic knowledge from them?

I decided to re-read the paper on how to read the papers; it was there, so I might as well give it a go. I found myself a quiet spot where I could really read it and absorb it. When I was ready, I started to read the third assignment paper, and I wrote the following about the experience in my assignment response:

For this assignment, I revisited the notes on reading from an ontological perspective. In my assessment, this was incredibly useful and very powerful. When I was ready to read the assignment paper, I found a quiet place where I could really listen to it.

Before I started, I sat in silence. I spent some time focusing on my breathing, and I also reflected on curiosity.

When my mind was calm, I started to read. I felt curious about what my listening would bring from the papers and I felt very much at peace with the process of reading the papers. I was no longer reading papers for an assignment; I was ready to have a conversation that just happened to be with some papers and articles. It was an amazing starting point, in my assessment.

As I read the papers, there were times when I would stop and ask myself why I had listened in the way that I had (there was no judgement; just curiosity and calm). Then, I would listen again and see if anything new came up for me. Sometimes it did; sometimes it didn’t, and that felt ok.

For the first time since starting this course, I didn’t feel as though I was defaulting to reading the papers to obtain academic knowledge. This was significant because, prior to this moment, I felt as though I was constantly battling with myself to not simply take academic learning from the papers. I now felt as though I was learning how to live the distinctions referenced in the papers. At the end of my reading, it really felt as though I had given the papers the gift of my listening.

From this point on, the papers became a place for me to completely lose myself; a place of reflection. My curiosity increased, and my hungry mind eagerly took on whatever learning was made available to me. The assignment papers became a substitute for the coaching conversations that I had been having prior to the course. It was so amazing, having so many wonderful and constructive thoughts in which to become completely lost.

My assignment responses significantly increased in size as a result of the way in which I was interpreting the papers, and I really want to acknowledge the patience and tolerance of the instructor who calmly and respectfully kept providing feedback on every section, without ever appearing concerned that my assignments were fast becoming the longest assignments he had ever seen in the multiple decade history of the course (across multiple countries). His acceptance that it just was, and his kind words when I checked in with him to make sure that I wasn’t overstepping a boundary, helped to provide an amazing, safe place for my many wonderful thoughts. I credit our instructor with providing an environment that enabled the incredible learning that this course ultimately gave me. His kind and patient approach allowed me to give myself permission to be at peace with who I was being and this, in turn, enabled me to simply get on with being a learner.

So, why have I just written multiple paragraphs on how I read a paper about how to read a paper? Well, there are a couple of reasons:

  1. This was an incredibly powerful experience for me, and set the scene for how I interpreted the entire course.
  2. I think this is an example of the incredible power of the course. In my opinion, it is a course where the experience of the course, together with the experience of applying the ontological distinctions, provides a richness that isn’t provided by simply obtaining knowledge through academic learning. The assignments were as much about giving us an opportunity to apply what we had learnt as they were about providing us with new information. In my assessment, this was invaluable, because it provided a depth of experience that could then be carried forward into our way of being as coaches and as humans in general.

My first big challenge on this course was around the way in which the assignments were marked. Our assignment tasks were largely centred around providing our interpretations of the papers and other information provided. This meant that there could be no right or wrong responses to the assignments; our responses were interpretations. And, because there were no right or wrong responses, there could be no mark provided for each assignment response. Assignments were therefore returned with feedback only. I was a reformed perfectionistic self-doubter with an over-inflated need to get things right, an academic background in maths and computer science, and a career in IT – the same IT that has a foundation in the binary numeric system. I did not work in maybes. There is no maybe in the binary numeric system. There is no maybe when calculating and applying mathematical formulae (except, perhaps, in statistics, which is probably why I failed that).

So, there I was, a binary-interpreting reformed perfectionistic self-doubter, participating in a course where my instructor was providing feedback such as “Great”, “Superb”, “Good work”, “Magnificent”, “Perhaps another way to look at it could be…” and “Fantastic”. On top of this, I had friends who were excitedly telling me about the distinctions and higher distinctions that they were receiving from their university courses, and responding with “Well, I got a magnificent, two superbs and a very good” seemed incredibly inadequate.

This. Did. My. Head. In.

For the first few assignments, I would become more anxious after I had read the feedback than I was when I submitted the assignment. And so began a process of me anxiously saying to my husband, after I had read each assignment response: “So, do you think a magnificent is better or worse than a splendid?” and “…and what about a very good? Where would that fit in?” and “Does ‘another way to interpret this is…’ mean that I have failed? Do you think I got it wrong?” My poor husband – a most amazing man – did a fantastic job of providing responses that were supportive and understanding whilst not being too direct and honest about my perfectionist tendencies.

Eventually, the learning came to me:

  1. Not everything had to be about right or wrong in order for it to be valid learning.
  2. The standards that I was applying to the assignments probably weren’t serving me. What standards of success would be meaningful for me and also serve me? (I think I went with standards around demonstrating my commitment to being a learner).
  3. The instructor’s feedback was his assessment of my interpretations. It was great as a guide, and it didn’t make either of us right or wrong.  Additionally, assessments of myself as a learner were also a very important part of the learning process. This wasn’t only about what the instructor thought; I wasn’t doing the course for the instructor’s benefit.
  4. Because the course did not seem to conform to the right-wrong learning approach that I had become accustomed to through my experience of the education system, uncertainty was being created for me. I realised that I was opposing that uncertainty. What if I accepted the uncertainty? What would happen if I was to have a sense of wonder and curiosity about the assignment feedback?
  5. For those times when I felt that my instructor’s feedback was important to me, what requests could I make? Could I add requests to my assignment responses that might serve me? For example: “It is important to me that I respect and understand Maturana’s work, and I don’t know if I have interpreted it as intended.  If you have a different interpretation to mine, would it be possible for you to share it, please? I would really like to understand and appreciate his work“. This felt like (and became) a very useful approach.

And so, four or five assignments into the course, I was finally able to accept that there was no right or wrong. From that point on, I read the feedback with gratitude, and also with an appreciation of the intention behind it.

One of the main assessment pieces for this level of the course was a public workshop, where we had to organise our own audience for an all day workshop based on a number of linguistic distinctions. In the past, I would have described myself as quite a shy person who hated being the centre of attention and, when the course first started, I was horrified to discover that we were going to be presenting a workshop. Once I accepted that the workshop requirement could not be changed, I decided that I would be a learner, and so I seized the opportunity to create something that I hoped would be worthwhile.

On the day, I was incredibly nervous to start with. However, as the day progressed, I could feel myself becoming stronger and more confident. During a session after lunch, I remember mentally pausing and asking myself who was leading the conversation because she seemed so confident and on top of her game and I would love to be like her! When I realised that it was me, I congratulated myself and moved on. I left that workshop with a very strong yearning to go out and “workshop the world”. I’d had such an amazing time, and was quite disappointed that we would only get one more opportunity to present a workshop during the course. I wanted so much for this to become my life. It is still a huge part of who I want to become.

Overall, Level 1 of the course was amazing, and provided me with many learning opportunities. My obsessive perfection started to subside and I found myself able to laugh about it with the instructor and my course colleagues. I also formed the assessment that I tend to become more perfectionistic, the more that I oppose uncertainty. This has been great learning.

At the end of Level 1, we were offered the possibility of receiving a copy of the Level 2 notes in advance, to work through during the summer break. As I considered this offer, I remember saying to myself “For the sake of what do I want to receive the course notes weeks in advance of the next level?” What came to me was that I wanted these notes so that I could remove the uncertainty of Level 2 of the course. I realised that taking the notes in advance would feed my perfectionistic tendencies, and it felt as though this would counter all of my amazing learning from Level 1. I asked myself what else would serve me during the summer break, and I realised that reading some books and being with my family were the two things that I wanted to do most.

With this new learning, I emailed my instructor and specifically requested that he didn’t send the notes. I told him that I had realised that accepting the offer would mean feeding my perfection, and I didn’t want to do that. This was fabulous learning that, in my assessment, couldn’t simply arise from acquiring academic knowledge. This learning had to be experienced and felt; it had to both come from within and touch within in order for it to have a sustainable impact.

Upon Reflection…

What is occurring to me as I reflect on my initial experience of the course is that when we see things a certain way, we make some possibilities for action available to us, whilst also removing other possibilities for action. When I started to explore how I was responding to the assignment papers, what I think I was really exploring was what possibilities for learning were available and not available to me. I was feeling as though I was limiting my learning by always relating the work back to my most recent experiences, and I wanted to find a way of seeing other possibilities for learning that I wasn’t seeing at the time. This doesn’t mean that I was wrong in my original thinking and interpretation of the assignments. After all, I could really only interpret based on my own listening and experiences. However, my thinking was that if I could understand what was behind my listening and interpretations, I could perhaps find other ways of interpreting the work and create a broader and richer experience of the course.

Something that I now try to hold as a regular practice in my approach to life is to try to understand that my way of interpreting a situation is not going to be the only way of interpreting a situation. Doing this allows me to look for other possibilities for the actions that I can take, rather than simply defaulting to what is immediately made available to me.

If, for example, I am meeting someone at midday and they do not turn up, it might be my default to think that they don’t care enough about me to manage my expectations, that they have no respect for my time, and they they are unreliable. If I accept this as the interpretation of the situation, what actions are available to me?

What if I stop and ask myself why I am interpreting in that way and what other interpretations are available? If I do this, then I may, for example, form an assessment that I have always felt a bit insecure in my relationship with that individual and that my immediate reaction is to make the situation about me and their feelings towards me because that helps me to protect myself. If I understand that, then a number of interpretations have the potential to become available, such as “Perhaps the person had an accident” or “Perhaps they are simply running late” or “Perhaps they forgot” or “Perhaps they got the day wrong”. Once I have assessed these interpretations as valid, what are the different possibilities for action that are available to me now? It could be that, instead of being angry, I become curious or concerned or even something else. Perhaps I might decide to call them and see if they are ok, rather than be angry about them not turning up.

Something else that occurred to me as I wrote this post is that the learning that came from simply sitting with my perfection, trying to be a friend to it and trying to understand it, was amazing. Throughout life, we are taught that some emotions are good and some are bad, and we are generally taught to avoid the bad emotions. My assessment is that all emotions happen for a reason and, when we take the time to sit with and understand these emotions without getting caught up in them or judging ourselves for them, we can learn quite a lot. If I hadn’t taken the time to sit with and understand my perfectionistic tendencies, there may have been potential for them to take over and I think I most likely would have become caught up in judging myself for experiencing perfection yet again. By sitting with it and understanding it, I felt as though I was leading what this did for me; I wasn’t letting it rule me.

My final reflection point is the power of the question “For the sake of what…” In my opnion, this is one of the most powerful questions that I encountered on the course. I have taken to using it in so many situations, in an attempt to understand why I am taking the actions that I am taking:

  • For the sake of what am I including that line in the email? For the sake of helping myself to feel superior. Hmmm. Why is that important to me? What could I say that speaks to the reader’s concerns and helps to achieve a more useful outcome?
  • For the sake of what did I say no to going for a walk with my child? For the sake of saving what little energy I had. Hmmm. How could I say yes and meet both our needs?

Points to Ponder…

I invite you to think of a situation that is not working as you would like it to:

  • For the sake of what are you taking the actions that you are taking?
  • What would it take for you to see other possibilities for action?
  • What shifts in language would be helpful?
  • What shifts in your emotional spaces might serve you?
  • What changes to your posture and breathing might help you to support the shifts in language and emotions?

One thought on “A Slightly Perfectionistic Learner

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